The Early Germans by Malcolm Todd

Book Review by Ursus

As a German-American I try to be conversant with the contributions of Germanic speaking peoples to history, from Mozart to Mercedes-Benz. And yet I only have the dimmest knowledge of German civilization before the 1600s. Trying to correct that problem, I read The Early Germans. Malcolm Todd delivers a serviceable overview of the barbarians who inherited the mighty Roman Empire.

The written record of the Germanic tribes is far from substantial, and it is viewed from the eyes of Roman writers who had their own agendas. It is left largely to archaeology to elucidate these nebulous peoples. Fortunately, Malcolm Todd is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter, and formerly a Senior Research Fellow of the British Academy. The work he has assembled is twelve chapters long, divided evenly between a general overview of Germanic culture, and a more detailed look at the history of specific tribes. The book thoughtfully contains footnotes, an index, a bibliography, and a few maps and illustrations. It is written in a generally readable style.

The ancient Germans don't lend themselves well to study. They appear in the historical record only in the 1st century BCE. Before that, the written record did not distinguish them between Celts, Scythians and other various barbarians. That Celtic material culture blended into the Germanic realm probably had something to do with the confusion. Naturally, we know most about the western Germanic tribes who migrated into Celtic lands and crossed swords with the Romans. The extent of eastern Germanic tribes on the far reaches of the classical world is more shrouded.

The Germans, much like the Celts, had no concept of overall unity, and thought of themselves in terms of tribes - a group of people exercising dominion of resources over a certain section of land. These tribes were unstable affairs, and tribes could split apart or combine with others according to a variety of circumstances. The most indivisible unit of Germanic society was the household. A few closely related households could call each other kin; it was the kin that imposed cultural mores on its members. Feuds between rival kins probably defined German identity more than affiliation with a tribe.

What passed for German government was divided between kings and warlords. Those that outside observers called kings originated from noble families. The warlords - duces, in Latin - were military commanders who were selected from proven valor in battle. They led a retinue of the tribe's leading warriors called the comitatus. The duces quite often enhanced their martial valor by serving in the Roman legion. By the late Roman Empire it was the duces who were the real powers of the Germanic tribes, often doubling as generals in the Roman army and as tribal leaders. There was also a tribal assembly composed of freeborn males, but Todd is doubtful they did anything but rubber stamp the decisions of the leaders. Finally, slavery existed to some degree.

The German economy revolved around agriculture and animal husbandry. The archaeological record confirms that Roman goods were pouring into Germania - fair quality bronze vessels for the poorer sort, and high quality silver goods for their leaders. Exports to Rome probably amounted to no more than some slaves and animal goods (rather ironic considering modern day Germany is Europe's leading exporter). Roman society also followed a shrewd policy of propping up friendly local elites with choice goods; it is sometimes difficult to tell where free trade ends and diplomatic bribery begins.

Given the low level of Germanic development, it is not surprising attempts to civilize Germania were quickly shelved. The loss of three legions at Teutoberg Forest was of course a major shock to Roman morale. But Rome had overcome worst disasters in the past. More likely, sober assessments of what little Rome had to gain from crossing the Rhine probably deterred any future attempts at conquest.

In Caesar’s day the Germanic tribes were comparatively small. Tribes like the Suebi, fierce their renown may have been, could still not hope to seriously challenge Roman rule. That all changed by the late empire. The earlier tribes had amalgamated into what has been termed "supertribes." The Goths, the Franks, the Saxons - these would be the hordes that would overthrow what was left of the Roman Empire. The second half of the book outlines the known events of Germanic invaders gradually assuming leadership of the Western provinces.

What is really fascinating is not how the Germans changed Rome, but how Rome changed the Germans. The tribes had not come to destroy Rome; they came to be a part of it. By the late empire, there are few records of high ranking German officials returning to their native lands after their tour of duty. They remained within the Roman sphere of influence, living out their lives as Roman subjects. The tribes that settled in Roman lands used Roman lawyers and landowners to fill their administration. By and large, they left little mark on the archaeological record distinct from the Roman population. Only in Britain did the invaders change the province more than the province changed the invaders.

The last chapter looks at the state of archaeology on Germany through the years. Bad scholarship and increased nationalism helped to slowly forge a racial view of the German people that the motley German tribes themselves most likely never possessed. This was notable in German culture by 1900; Hitler was not the genesis of German racialism, merely the exploiter of it. Thankfully, we seem to be beyond that now. New finds and better scholarship are slowly illuminating the shadowy past of the German speaking peoples.

The main problem with this work is not exactly the author's fault. The subject under study is, as I mentioned above, heavily indebted to archaeological surveys. And so, the book often reads like a long list of unearthed artifacts. This is not always exciting reading, at least to those who are not hardcore archaeology buffs. I found myself often wearily skimming entire passages. In fact, the first time I read the work, I couldn't even manage to finish the second half. It was only later that I forced myself to reread and write a review.

Despite this, I feel The Early Germans is worthy of your reading consideration. I read the first edition of the book because it was selling cheaply on the used market; there has been a second edition released which seems updated with new archaeological info. If you're an archaeological buff, you'll probably find this book very interesting indeed. And if your ancestral roots are from Germany, than Malcolm Todd helps introduce you to your forebears. As both a Romanophile and a German-American, I can appreciate this work.

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